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Spring has arrived in New Zealand, perfect for hiking and walking around the best of our national parks. We have just finished a magical thirteen days around Southwest New Zealand, we were absolutely blessed by the weather; we had many wonderful experiences including some facinating encounters with wildlife and we enjoyed great camaraderie amongst the group. I think I can speak for everyone to say we were all a bit sad for it to end. For me as guide of this trip it was a special occasion, marking my return to leading walking tours in the South Island after a break of two years due to the Christchurch earthquakes, it was with a real feeling of satisfaction that I got my hiking boots dirty again in places like the Hollyford, Routeburn and Milford Tracks and of course Mount Cook and Arthurs Pass National Park.
Our spring walking adventure - 13 days through Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area
A tour through the landscapes of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area is full of highlights with something to surprise and delight every day so it’s hard to single out some places more than others, but looking back and talking about the highlights over dinner on our last night here we all agreed these days would last in our memories for a long time:
1. Milford Track wildlife - Weka and chicks
The Milford Track is not always the first place that comes to mind when you think about wildlife experiences but with each visit you are reminded this is one of the best places to see native birdlife in the whole country. Starting our day bathed in sunshine certainly got us off on the right foot and we all snapped lots of photos on the short boat ride across from Milford Sound to the start of the track before commencing our hike from Sandfly Point up Giant’s Gate Falls. Almost immediately we heard and saw birdlife all around us, being the only ones on the track at this time of the day certainly helped too. A lot of the usual suspects like the Bellbird, Grey Warbler, Tomtit and Fantail were around but also a few more rare birds like the shining cuckoo, native Pigeon and my favourite of all, the Kaka (forest parrot). But what had to be the highlight was on our return walk when right in our path was a Weka with two very fluffy chicks in tow. The Weka family didn’t seem bothered by our presence at all and we watched them and took photos from a very handy distance, something I’ve only seen twice before in over ten years guiding. The Weka is one of New Zealand’s five flightless birds, about the size of a chicken and a member of the rail family.
The Milford Track is not only one of the most popular walks in New Zealand, but also an active conservation area, helped by so many track walkers contributing through their hut fees or tour packages, which provide the resources for an active predator control programme, this makes a big difference fand increases the numbers of native birds. Walking the Milford Track from Sandfly Point (the Milford Sound end of the track) to Giant’s Gate Falls is not a day walk option everyone knows about, but it’s a great way to combine Milford Sound and the track on the same day and enjoy hiking in relative solitude. We all were aware of the Milford’s reputation as the ‘finest walk in the world’ but it’s fair to say we were taken aback by the amount of birdlife on this short section of track. A great morning’s work. (or walk!)
2. Fiordland Crested Penguins at Martins Bay
There are some days hiking you remember for ever and our walk to the seal colony at Martins Bay will be one of these for certain. After a thrilling helicopter ride in from Milford Sound and a magnificent ‘glamping’ (tented) lunch in the wilds of Fiordland National Park we knew the afternoon would have to be pretty special to top what had come before, but that’s exactly what happened. Our walk began through the coastal Fiordland forest and took us to the rocky outcrops of Martins Bay and the Hollyford River mouth, stunning scenes in their own right made all the more memorable by the wildlife on show at Long Reef. It’s a pretty safe bet the New Zealand Fur Seal will be in residence here which I explained to our guests and added that the Fiordland Crested Penguin also lives here and it was the right time of year to see them.
Getting close to the shore the barks of the seals alerted us to their presence well before we saw them; we made our way out onto the rocky shoreline and saw several seals immediately. I went ahead to an area likely to have more more seals and right in front of me were two Fiordland Crested Penguins, having just come ashore after a day out fishing. I ran back to our guests and brought them round to the spot where we observed the penguins in complete solitude for about 40 minutes. There was no-one and nothing else around, just us, the penguins, seals and sea birds. The two penguins were on the rocks about 40 feet away from us, giving us a perfect viewpoint to watch as they slowly made their way up to the bush and their nests for the night. Then a real surprise as one more penguin we hadn’t previously seen appeared from behind a rock right next to us, paying us no interest at all, hopped right through the middle of our small group then into the flax bushes for the night!
This was a unique experience and very memorable day for all of us, one of the highlights of my entire guiding life and it capped our Fiordland day out nicely, helped of course by the wonderful hospitality and accommodation at Martins Bay Lodge! A red letter day.
3. Mou Waho Island - So much in half a day
If you had to capture the essence of New Zealand in a half day, the trip to Mou Waho Island on Lake Wanaka would be hard to beat. So much to do, see and learn in a short half day span, but at no time did we feel rushed, it was just one highlight after another, all at a nice even pace as we walked to the island’s peak and back. The day started with the boat ride across Lake Wanaka - the scenery on this short trip alone would be enough to make most people’s highlights reel but for us it was just our commute. Mou Waho Island is one of only five islands in Lake Wanaka, and one of New Zealand’s taonga (treasures) as a predator free nature reserve the island is teeming with wildlife. Native wood pigeon crashing through the trees, the once highly endangered Buff Weka on the ground, the gruesome looking cave weta and the feisty Southern Alps gecko were all amongst the creatures we saw at close range on our hike, as well as learning all about the boat building history of the island and planting a native rata as part of the reforestation project. We had morning tea overlooking the island in the small lake, on the island in the large lake before hiking to the viewpoint at the island’s peak and northern extreme making for some stunning photos to cap off our day.
We probably took more photographs and learnt more about New Zealand ecology in this four hour window that at any other stage on our trip. New Zealand in a bottle.
I’d really like to thank the weather gods for putting on such a fantastic run of sunshine, the wildlife gods for having all the right creatures turn up at the right times and last but not least to our guests on this trip, a special mention to Ken who was so kind to take and share so many outstanding photos. Take a look at the full album from our trip here.
New Zealand Trails operates small group guided walking tours in the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area - 13 or 11 day tour starting in Christchurch and finishing in Queenstown or back in Christchurch again. You’ll enjoy guided walks on the best tracks in New Zealand - the Routeburn, Hollyford and Milford Track plus Arthurs Pass and Mt Cook National Parks are all included in your tour. On top of the walking you’ll never forget iconic activities like the TranzAlpine train, glacier hiking and Fiordland helicopter ride and backcountry jetboat. All this with the comforts of home, there is no camping or staying in huts on this tour, accommodation is to a four star standard and we enjoy the best New Zealand cuisine in the evenings.
by Andrew Wells - New Zealand Trails
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